New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Shlemiel the First"
Folksbiene production at Skirball Center,
New York University

“Shlemiel the First,” the joyous 1994 Klezmer musical, reappeared this past month on the New York stage for, alas, too brief a visit. This revival was the joint production of the National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene and the Theatre for a New Audience, staged at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. And this time, unusual for the Folksbiene, the show is in English, not Yiddish, calling for no subtitles.

The Robert Brustein adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer story is a wonderful little fairy tale, a story of what once was—or perhaps never was—of life in the 19th century eastern European shtetls. It is a heritage many of us look back upon with nostalgia, longing, confusion, re-invention.

In any event, every one—Jew and non-Jew—walks out of the theater smiling broadly, grateful for that rare feel-good experience. But there is a deeper message here—namely, that one has to step away occasionally to appreciate what one has. It is, in fact, a reaffirmation of life. “L’chaim, to life, l’chaim.”

The story? It is the town of Chelm, where everything is upsidedown and forward/backward. A perfect fit for Shlemiel, the local beadle and a veritable shlemiel (Yiddish for “fool” or “loser”) “He’s a shlemiel, but he’s my shlemiel,” laments his wife Tryna Ritza.

Chelm is also a perfect fit for the town sages, led by Gronam Ox, who deals with sour cream shortages, burned blintzes, bossy wives. Every one is slightly mad, sane in a crazy way, wise in a stupid way.

The sages decide to send Shlemiel on a journey to spread the wisdom of Gronam Ox “around the world and elsewhere.” And, armed with his dreydl and his sweet naivete, he sets out. But along the way, Shlemiel is robbed, duped, and sent in the wrong direction (in fact, back to Chelm). On arriving, he thinks he is in a new place, a second Chelm, a parallel universe. This is not his wife, that bossy shrew, but a seductive stranger. These are not his annoying children, but adorable tots.

This little Singer tale comes to life beautifully and Klezmatically. A number of top-notch creators have worked together to achieve this magic—not only Singer himself, and that Renaissance man of the theater Robert Brustein (who conceived and adapted the piece), but a myriad of others. It is Arnold Weinstein’s lyrics, with composition and orchestration by Hankus Netsky and additional music and music direction by Zalmen Mlotek. And David Gordon, who directed and choreographed this Folksbiene production, provided editorial supervision as well.

The set itself (courtesy of Robert Israel) is deceptively simple. No rotating stages here. Scenes are restaged by dragging a sheet, loaded with props, to and from the stage. The “bed” in opening and closing scenes is a perpendicular panel, on which the loving couple lies (or, rather, stands). This up-and-down bed sets the mood for all to come--for a surreal, comic, fairytale world. It’s all on a highly professional level—from the Klezmer band’s vibrant music, to Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, to Catherine Zuber’s inflated costumes that turn actors into buxom wives.

As to the cast, Michael Iannucci (Iannucci? Is that a Jewish name?) captures the Shlemiel role perfectly, never going over the top. In his understated way, he not only conquers the role, but his audience as well. He is sweet, lovable, irresistible. Amy Warren (Warren? A Jewish name?) as his long-suffering mate, gives a perfectly-nuanced performance underscored by her fine singing voice and strong stage presence. And Jeff Brooks (Brooks? A Jewish name?) as Gronam Ox is a delight. Others in the cast do not, alas, have comparable singing voices and tend to scream through their songs, and the Klezmer music tends to repetitive themes. But these are minor quibbles, forgotten when the sages go through their dance routines with a real-life dummy or turn into the well-padded housewives. It is mostly great fun.

And it is a memorable return to the past—or the past we choose to remember. When will we have another return of this Shlemiel? Just as “A Christmas Carol” and “Nutcracker” show up annually, why can’t Shlemiel return every Chanukah?

--Irene Backalenick
January 6, 2012

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